Imagine Vladmir Putin…


By Joe Campbell
February 20th, 2008

[digg-reddit-me]I’ve been talking with one of my friends about what this election means recently. He’s in favor of Senator Hillary Clinton – and I, obviously, favor Senator Barack Obama. His argument is essentially that Mr. Obama is too “green” (although my friend believes Mr. Obama would be exceptional in eight years or so) and that Ms. Clinton would provide competent if uninspired leadership making her the better choice for today. There are a lot of grounds to dispute this on – whether Ms. Clinton’s “experience” means much; whether she would be a competent manager – her campaign planning suggesting otherwise; whether she could accomplish anything, as divisive as she is; whether or not she will win; whether Mr. Obama lacks sufficient experience when compared with Ms. Clinton; whether Mr. Obama is “green”.

I think all of these raise legitimate points. But the argument I choose is the one that convinced me in the end to support Mr. Obama over Ms. Clinton, Senator John McCain, former Senator John Edwards, and the rest of the field. Simply, the American experiment is in bad shape.

We have an executive today who does not respect the rule of law, who has acted imperiously (only slightly more so than President Bill Clinton); we have a corrupt culture in Washington that refuses to take action to reign the executive branch in, or even to protect their own prerogatives; we have a media environment that rarely focuses on hard-hitting news and often reports on important topics as a matter of “he said, she said” without resolving factual conflicts between the diverging accounts; we have an increasingly partisan politics that divides Americans into two teams despite great consensus on major issues; our foreign policy is increasingly imperial, if well-meaning; the bubbling conflicts around the world have been exacerbated in the past decade – and a “return to normalcy” that Ms. Clinton promises will not be sufficient to quell them.

What we need is a president who will be willing to return some of the powers Mr. Clinton and President George W. Bush have taken unto their office; a president who will be able to start a serious discussion of the long-term issues facing America and then unite the citizenry to try to take steps to deal with these issues. It’s unlikely any individual could accomplish all of these things – but Ms. Clinton does not seem inclined to even try. Her campaign is not about where America is headed – but about micro-initiatives to make segments of the population a bit better off. There’s a time for that approach to politics, but that time is not now.

My friend agreed with virtually everything I said above. Yet somehow, he doesn’t see America as in a fundamental crisis – and because of this, he sees Ms. Clinton as the more “safe” choice.

Andrew Sullivan, Glenn Greenwald, Charlie Savage, and Lawrence Lessig (and former Governor Mario Cuomo) have all helped convince me of the urgency of this crisis with their constant clear-sighted analyses – and thus moved me to support Mr. Obama as the only candidate with the potential to begin to tackle these issues.

But somehow, despite the relatively widespread knowledge of the state of our government and our politics, something is missing; some urgency. People tend to think: it can’t happen here. Glenn Greenwald, reflecting perhaps a similar frustration to mine, tried to explain part of the issue by way of comparison:

Imagine if, say, Vladimir Putin was accused by his own top officials of systematically spying on Russian citizens for years in ways that were patently illegal, but he then manipulated the courts to ensure he was never accountable, and had his political allies in parliament block any investigations, so that the activities remained concealed forever and he was never made to answer for what he did. Think about the grave denunciations that Fred Hiatt, Charles Krauthammer and the State Department would be issuing over such authoritarian and lawless maneuvering.

That’s exactly how our country operates now. When high political officials here are accused of breaking the law, they need not defend themselves. Congress acts to protect and immunize them. The courts refuse even to hear the lawsuits. And executive branch officials are completely shielded from the most basic mechanics of the rule of law.

No hyperbole is necessary to sustain the Putin comparison. It’s demonstrated by the facts themselves, by how our system of government works now. None of the “great controversies” of the Bush years, involving multiple accusations of lawbreaking, war crimes and other forms of serious corruption, has resulted in any legal process or investigations or ajudications because our government officials have been vested with omnipotent instruments to shield themselves from accountability, or even investigation, of any kind.

In a minimally functioning Republic, when our political leaders are accused of concealing wrongdoing, Congress investigates, uncovers what happens, and informs the American people. When political leaders are accused of breaking the law, courts decide whether that occurred. None of the branches of government do that any longer. They do the opposite: they not only fail to perform those functions, but they affirmatively act to block investigations, help the conduct remain concealed, and ensure that there is no adjudication. When it comes to ensuring that the NSA spying scandal specifically remains forever uninvestigated, secret, and unexamined, telecom amnesty will be the final nail in this coffin, but it is merely illustrative of how our political culture now functions.

The failure of many Americans to realize how close we are to losing the essence of the American experiment has many causes. But at root, it is a failure of imagination.

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